Fr. James V. Schall, S. J., a longtime, legendary Georgetown political-science professor took leave of his role only a few months before Pope Benedict XVI stunned the world with his news. Fr. Schall delivered his “last lecture” — “The Final Gladness” — at Georgetown in December. He talks with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez about the retiring pontiff and his teaching, what books might help save your soul, and future and final things.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: How is retirement? Do you feel a kinship with Pope Benedict XVI because of his transition?
FR. SCHALL: “Retirement” is a funny word, isn’t it? You “withdraw” from something, but retirement is not life, though it is a phase of life. As I have mentioned elsewhere, I am about six months younger than the pope, but I announced my retirement six months before he did. Actually, I gave pretty much the same reasons he did, except the “burden” of our respective offices cannot be at all compared. When Benedict XVI talks of “retirement,” it means very little, in a way. He is a man of mind. Mind remains the same waiting to be thought, be it that of Plato, Aquinas, Samuel Johnson, or Chesterton. Few in the world have really been willing to come to terms with the reordering of mind that this man has accomplished in his long and fruitful life. It is in this reordering that the real seeds of our future lie.
LOPEZ: How do you think history will remember Pope Benedict XVI?
FR. SCHALL: It will remember him as the greatest and most learned intellect ever to occupy the Chair of Peter. No public official in our time has been anywhere near his intellectual equal. This disparity is itself the cause of much disorder, if we grant, as we must, that truth is the essence of intellect and indeed order. In reading Benedict, I have always been struck by how familiar he is not just with the Old and New Testaments (in their original languages) but with his constant referring to the Fathers of the Church, especially Augustine, and the intellectual popes like Gregory the Great and Leo the Great, and also Irenaeus, Basil, Maximius, Origen, Bonaventure, and I do not know them all. He knows German philosophy well, and always cites Plato. He is at home with all the Marxist philosophers. Indeed, in Spe Salvi, he cited two of the most famous ones as witness to the logical need of a resurrection of the body. Benedict is a member of one of the French academies. No one has really begun to do his homework on what this pope has thought his way through. The media and most universities are, basically, hopeless. I suspect his final opera omni in a critical German edition will equal in length that of Augustine, Aquinas, and Bonaventure.
LOPEZ: Why is his Jesus of Nazareth significant?
FR. SCHALL: The three volumes of this book should not put us off, either because of its length or its erudition. First, the pope wrote much of this book and published it while he was pope but, as it were, not as pope. That is, it is not an “official” document of the magisterium. What it is, rather, is an account of what the man who sits on the Chair of Peter thinks about the key question: “Just who was this Jesus of Nazareth, anyhow?” We were asked simply, about Christ: what is the evidence on which you base your acceptance of His Divinity? The book clearly and forcefully lays it out. We can take it or leave it, but not without a nagging sense that we really have not looked at the evidence.
What Benedict did was to state, in brief, his considered opinion and research. He concluded that all the evidence available to us over a 2,000-year period, including the latest scientific evidence, indicates that Jesus Christ is who He said He was. That is, He was in fact the Son of God, sent into the world by the Father for the redemption of mankind from their sins. Benedict proceeds to examine all the evidence that this position is not true. Tome after tome has been written to try to prove that Christ never existed, that He was merely a man, that He was a political fanatic, that He was a prophet, that He was a spirit, that He was almost anything but who and what He said He was. Yet, once one’s evidence is set down, it can be examined for its coherence and logic. This examination is what Benedict has done. If some evidence that makes sense can be shown to disprove the fact, well and good. But it has not been produced yet. In fact, the evidence tends in the direction that the Church has always said it did.
Thus, Jesus of Nazareth stands there before us. We may want to do our best to ignore it, as we do not like what it portends if it is true. But if it is true, and the evidence that it is seems to be there, then we can no longer simply go about our business as if something momentous did not happen. If the Word was made flesh and did dwell among us, we want to know it, and acknowledge that it does make a difference to our lives, to how we live and how we think.